Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 12, 2012

Striking a Blow Against Syria

Until recently, one of the arguments employed by those who oppose a greater American role in stopping the slaughter in Syria has been that Bashar al-Assad’s forces were closely intermixed with the population and that it would be hard to hit the regime’s thugs without also hurting innocent people.

But news that Assad is relying more on helicopter gunships—which, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he continues to receive from Russia–actually creates a vulnerability that could be exploited at relatively low cost by sophisticated Western air forces.

Read More

Until recently, one of the arguments employed by those who oppose a greater American role in stopping the slaughter in Syria has been that Bashar al-Assad’s forces were closely intermixed with the population and that it would be hard to hit the regime’s thugs without also hurting innocent people.

But news that Assad is relying more on helicopter gunships—which, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he continues to receive from Russia–actually creates a vulnerability that could be exploited at relatively low cost by sophisticated Western air forces.

Helicopter gunships are formidable when deployed against civilians; but they are sitting ducks if they have to face fixed-wing fighters such as the F-15 or F-18. If the U.S. and its allies were to declare a no-fly zone over Syria, it would hardly end the violence. But if NATO aircraft were thereby authorized to, at a minimum, ground Assad’s helicopters, that would certainly strike a blow against his campaign of terror and help put the rebels on a more equal footing with the government.

Read Less

The Real Jewish Fight on Campus

Israel’s treatment on campus is a perpetual concern of a broad swath of American Jews, and rightly so. The very idea of a Jewish state, to say nothing of the policies that state’s citizens elect to follow, regularly receives there unwarranted criticisms that might play in the European mainstream, but have little currency in the United States off the quad.

The anxiety consequently produced nevertheless often manages to miss the true nature of the challenge on campus, as well as the reality of Jewish life there. A couple of articles published in the past few days offer refreshing windows into what things look like at ground level.

Kenneth L. Marcus, the president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy of the divide in the Jewish community between “quietists” and “alarmists,” the former being those who deny that there is any anti-Semitism on campus, and the latter being those who “see danger behind every corner.”

Neither camp, Marcus notes, is entirely correct. The alarmists too often ignore the extraordinary richness of opportunities for Jewish life on campus along with the demise of an institutional anti-Semitism that once barred Jews from entry or made their lives difficult while there. The quietists see those opportunities perhaps too well, ignoring troubling undertones in the discussion of Jews and the Jewish state.

Read More

Israel’s treatment on campus is a perpetual concern of a broad swath of American Jews, and rightly so. The very idea of a Jewish state, to say nothing of the policies that state’s citizens elect to follow, regularly receives there unwarranted criticisms that might play in the European mainstream, but have little currency in the United States off the quad.

The anxiety consequently produced nevertheless often manages to miss the true nature of the challenge on campus, as well as the reality of Jewish life there. A couple of articles published in the past few days offer refreshing windows into what things look like at ground level.

Kenneth L. Marcus, the president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy of the divide in the Jewish community between “quietists” and “alarmists,” the former being those who deny that there is any anti-Semitism on campus, and the latter being those who “see danger behind every corner.”

Neither camp, Marcus notes, is entirely correct. The alarmists too often ignore the extraordinary richness of opportunities for Jewish life on campus along with the demise of an institutional anti-Semitism that once barred Jews from entry or made their lives difficult while there. The quietists see those opportunities perhaps too well, ignoring troubling undertones in the discussion of Jews and the Jewish state.

Another article published in The Times of Israel by Seffi Kogen, a student at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, laments the “disappearance” of Jewish students from Israel-themed events, diagnosing pre-college Jewish educational experiences that teaches them that campuses are a hotbed of anti-Israel protests and speakers and arms them with debating points, only to find that students don’t show up to do anything much related to Israel except for those rare annual rites of dramatic anti-Israel protest. He thinks the solution is getting young Jews “to love to discuss Israel and think about Israel, and not only to fight for Israel.”

Kogen’s take represents the downside for Israel’s case when young people are fed too many alarming stories before they get to school while not being told enough about the less dramatic but more costly pervasive negativity in the attitude toward Israel taken by far too many young people who don’t know or care much about the Middle East. If you are taught only to fight, but not to persuade, and only to be concerned about a speech in the student union, and not a conversation in a dorm room, it’s not surprising that you find yourself shrugging most days and getting animated only when someone puts a mock wall up.

Of course, as a general matter, it’s easier to get concerned about dramatic displays than subtle remarks. Dealing effectively with the latter, which is probably of far greater consequence than the former, means getting better at teaching young people how to get beyond pro-Israel talking points and into the substance of the justice underlying the cause of Jewish independence.

It’s harder, but that’s what we’ll have to do if we really want to improve the way Israel is talked about on campus.

Read Less

Watergate and the White House Leaks

In an interview today, Representative Peter King said that the growing scandal about the recent spate of national security leaks is not only worse than Watergate; it dwarfs it. There’s “no comparison” between the two. Watergate, according to King, “meant nothing.” Now I believe, with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, that the leaks to the New York Times about the Osama bin Laden raid, the president directing drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen based on a classified “kill list” of terror suspects, and especially the cyber campaign to disrupt and spy on Iran’s nuclear weapons program are quite serious. I wouldn’t downplay their significance for a moment. But neither should Watergate be understated.

As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, “at its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by [Richard] Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.” It involved a “massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against [Nixon’s] real or perceived opponents.”

The Woodward and Bernstein article is most useful in quoting from the Watergate tapes, where the things discussed included blackmail, hush money, illegal wiretapping, political sabotage, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice. When the president of the United States approves a plan directing the CIA to impede a criminal investigation by the FBI in order to cover up his administration’s illegal acts, it means something. There is a reason that Nixon’s party abandoned him. His impending impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate convinced Nixon to resign. “Too many lies, too many crimes,” in the words of Barry Goldwater.

Read More

In an interview today, Representative Peter King said that the growing scandal about the recent spate of national security leaks is not only worse than Watergate; it dwarfs it. There’s “no comparison” between the two. Watergate, according to King, “meant nothing.” Now I believe, with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, that the leaks to the New York Times about the Osama bin Laden raid, the president directing drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen based on a classified “kill list” of terror suspects, and especially the cyber campaign to disrupt and spy on Iran’s nuclear weapons program are quite serious. I wouldn’t downplay their significance for a moment. But neither should Watergate be understated.

As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, “at its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by [Richard] Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.” It involved a “massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against [Nixon’s] real or perceived opponents.”

The Woodward and Bernstein article is most useful in quoting from the Watergate tapes, where the things discussed included blackmail, hush money, illegal wiretapping, political sabotage, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice. When the president of the United States approves a plan directing the CIA to impede a criminal investigation by the FBI in order to cover up his administration’s illegal acts, it means something. There is a reason that Nixon’s party abandoned him. His impending impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate convinced Nixon to resign. “Too many lies, too many crimes,” in the words of Barry Goldwater.

The Nixon presidency, whatever else it might have achieved, ended up as a criminal conspiracy. Richard Nixon brought the nation he was elected to serve to the edge of a constitutional crisis. No person – and certainly no member of Congress, who after all has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution – should minimize what Watergate was about.

Woodward would later say, “Accountability to the law applies to everyone. The problem with kings, and prime ministers, and presidents, is that they think they are above it, and there is no accountability, and that they have some special rights, and privileges, and status. And a process that says: No. We have our laws and believe them, and they apply to everyone, is a very good thing. … I happen to believe in the essentially conservative idea that concentrations of power are unsafe and that those concentrations of power need to be monitored and held to account regularly. Watergate did that like nothing else that ever happened in this country.”

Those are words worth pondering, even for – and maybe especially for – those who have forgotten the significance of what happened 40 years ago this month.

Read Less

Romney’s Education Course Correction

Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.

Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.

Read More

Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.

Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.

The Times puts down Romney’s education ideas as a desperate attempt to create some distance between himself and President Obama that is complicated by the president’s support for some reform proposals like charter schools. His position is also described as somehow a derivative of Tea Party ideology — a pejorative in Timespeak — because it returns the GOP to a position of distrust for federal education power after Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative.

But one needn’t be a Tea Party stalwart to understand how widely disliked the federal mandates created by Bush’s policies were in local school districts. Though the intent was to force improvement — a laudable goal — the imposition of an education philosophy that seemed at times solely focused on standardized tests is unpopular with both educators and parents. Though accountability is key to improving an often failing public system, Bush’s experiment seems to have proved that it cannot be accomplished by a top-down dictat coming from Washington.

Just as important, Romney’s willingness to cross a teachers union red line that, as the Times points out, Obama will not cross is no superficial difference. By seizing upon school choice as not just an education priority but also a civil rights issue, Romney is also putting Obama on the defensive.

The Times gives another airing to the tired chorus of choice critics, voiced by, among others, Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Spellings who quit as a Romney adviser after he made it clear he would support voucher plans, says the idea of creating accountability via the competition that would be created by choice is “untried and untested.” But that’s what school choice opponents have been saying for a generation as they fought every attempt to try voucher plans or to curtail or end voucher experiments.

To say that advocacy of choice is an attempt to impose right-wing ideology on the education system is looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. To the contrary, it is the liberal ideological opposition to empowering parents to choose their children’s schools that is the barrier to overcome here.

Moreover, choice would give minority parents whose kids are often stuck in failed inner city schools the opportunity to give them the same opportunities President Obama’s children have. It should be remembered that despite his support for public schools, Sasha and Malia Obama go to the elite Sidwell Friends School, not a local D.C. institution. Nor should it be forgotten that President Obama bears the responsibility for killing a Washington school choice scheme (initiated under President Bush) that enabled poor kids to rub shoulders with the presidential children at Sidwell.

Far from going out on a limb with the Tea Party, Romney’s course correction from Bush’s diversion from traditional Republican ideas is both good politics and good policy.

Read Less

Dems Block Resolution on WH Leak Probe

Sen. John McCain, who has been out in front on the White House leaking scandal, introduced a resolution earlier today calling for a special counsel to investigate. The Hill reports it was immediately blocked by Senate Democrats:

McCain introduced a resolution Tuesday expressing the Senate’s support for [Attorney General Eric] Holder to appoint a special prosecutor. But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) objected after McCain asked for unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to consideration of his resolution.

“What is at issue here is whether or not we are going to give an opportunity for U.S. attorneys, professionals in their fields, to handle this particular inquiry,” Wyden said. “And I see no evidence, Mr. President, that the way U.S. attorneys are handling this investigation at this time is not with the highest standards of professionalism.”

Democrats are (to their credit) willing to criticize the White House for the leaks, but so far they’ve lacked the political courage to call for a special prosecutor to lead the investigation. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the most vocal of these Democratic critics, announced her opposition to a special counsel appointment today. Feinstein said that the two attorneys appointed by the Department of Justice can handle the investigation — despite concerns over conflict of interest — and insisted that appointing a special prosecutor would needlessly prolong the investigation.

Read More

Sen. John McCain, who has been out in front on the White House leaking scandal, introduced a resolution earlier today calling for a special counsel to investigate. The Hill reports it was immediately blocked by Senate Democrats:

McCain introduced a resolution Tuesday expressing the Senate’s support for [Attorney General Eric] Holder to appoint a special prosecutor. But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) objected after McCain asked for unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to consideration of his resolution.

“What is at issue here is whether or not we are going to give an opportunity for U.S. attorneys, professionals in their fields, to handle this particular inquiry,” Wyden said. “And I see no evidence, Mr. President, that the way U.S. attorneys are handling this investigation at this time is not with the highest standards of professionalism.”

Democrats are (to their credit) willing to criticize the White House for the leaks, but so far they’ve lacked the political courage to call for a special prosecutor to lead the investigation. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the most vocal of these Democratic critics, announced her opposition to a special counsel appointment today. Feinstein said that the two attorneys appointed by the Department of Justice can handle the investigation — despite concerns over conflict of interest — and insisted that appointing a special prosecutor would needlessly prolong the investigation.

The strong opposition from Democrats is interesting. They certainly didn’t have the same concerns about DOJ appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the Valerie Plame leak, which had far fewer national security implications. Resolving this case as quickly as possible is important, but the overriding concern should be to get it right.

By opposing the special counsel appointment, Democrats are basically demanding that we blindly believe the White House’s claim that the leaks were unauthorized. Of course there’s no way to know for sure. Even if you’re inclined to trust the White House, there is still always a chance – slim as we might hope — that the leaks were approved at the highest level. And, if that’s the case, should we really let the administration control an investigation of itself?

Read Less

Putin to Visit Israel. Not Obama.

Jewish Democrats have been imploring President Obama to visit Israel to no avail ever since he was elected. But while the president has conspicuously avoided Israel during his foreign trips even when visiting the Middle East, the authoritarian running a far less friendly country has no scruples about coming to the Jewish state. The Times of Israel reports today that Vladimir Putin, who recently returned to the presidency of the Russian Federation after slumming for a few years in the prime minister’s office, will be heading to Israel later this month.

Putin will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem and dedicate a monument in Netanya to soldiers of the Red Army who were killed during World War II. He will also visit the Palestinian territories and Jordan. The visit will be Putin’s second to Israel as the leader of Russia (he previously visited in 2005) and puts President Obama’s refusal to go to Israel in an interesting light. Even though the president has embarked on a year-long Jewish charm offensive motivated by his desire to hold onto the Jewish vote this November, his decision not to try and win Israeli hearts and minds by coming to their country is curious, especially because it would be to his political advantage to do so.

Read More

Jewish Democrats have been imploring President Obama to visit Israel to no avail ever since he was elected. But while the president has conspicuously avoided Israel during his foreign trips even when visiting the Middle East, the authoritarian running a far less friendly country has no scruples about coming to the Jewish state. The Times of Israel reports today that Vladimir Putin, who recently returned to the presidency of the Russian Federation after slumming for a few years in the prime minister’s office, will be heading to Israel later this month.

Putin will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem and dedicate a monument in Netanya to soldiers of the Red Army who were killed during World War II. He will also visit the Palestinian territories and Jordan. The visit will be Putin’s second to Israel as the leader of Russia (he previously visited in 2005) and puts President Obama’s refusal to go to Israel in an interesting light. Even though the president has embarked on a year-long Jewish charm offensive motivated by his desire to hold onto the Jewish vote this November, his decision not to try and win Israeli hearts and minds by coming to their country is curious, especially because it would be to his political advantage to do so.

Putin may be beset by demonstrations protesting his authoritarian rule at home and his support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and his equivocal attitude toward Iran’s nuclear program won’t win him any popularity contests in Israel. But his public attitude toward the Jewish state is friendly, even going so far as to call Israel a “Russian-speaking country.” His visit is more than just a diplomatic exercise as it sends a powerful message about Israel’s legitimacy to hostile Middle East nations that still look to Russia for support.

But though President Obama was willing to go to Israel while running for president in 2008, his deep dislike for Netanyahu has led him to avoid it since then. Though he spent his first three years in office picking fights with Israel, his deliberate avoidance of Israel in June 2009 when he spoke to the Arab world from Cairo (and made an insulting comparison between the Holocaust and the plight of the Palestinians) was resented even more than some of his comments about Jerusalem and the 1967 lines. Israelis duly noted it and polls have consistently shown him to be the least-liked American president in recent memory.

Much of this hostility might be ameliorated by a state visit where he could publicly show his respect for Israeli sensibilities and support for its security. But though Jewish Democrats have called for such a trip and Republicans have feared that it would lessen their chances of an increased Jewish vote in November, it hasn’t happened.

Those Democrats who have attempted to claim that Obama is Israel’s best friend ever in the White House — a claim that has been met with hilarity by many American Jews and incredulity by Israelis — the fact that Putin is going to Israel this summer while Obama still avoids it makes this argument even less credible.

Read Less

Voices of the Presidents

It is one thing to read a speech, and quite another to listen to it.

The earliest recording of a human voice dates from 1860, but it was decades before contemporaries began recording presidents. While most anyone growing up in the United States, attending high school, or watching television will have heard presidents dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt speak, this online collection from Michigan State University is worth browsing through: The curators have collected recordings of presidents’ voices dating back to Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president who occupied the Oval Office between 1889-1893. Here’s Teddy Roosevelt explaining opposition to the Progressive Party, and here’s Herbert Hoover speaking at a 1932 campaign rally.

Read More

It is one thing to read a speech, and quite another to listen to it.

The earliest recording of a human voice dates from 1860, but it was decades before contemporaries began recording presidents. While most anyone growing up in the United States, attending high school, or watching television will have heard presidents dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt speak, this online collection from Michigan State University is worth browsing through: The curators have collected recordings of presidents’ voices dating back to Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president who occupied the Oval Office between 1889-1893. Here’s Teddy Roosevelt explaining opposition to the Progressive Party, and here’s Herbert Hoover speaking at a 1932 campaign rally.

Hearing these snippets certainly reminds how much American history has been lost simply because we never had the technology to record it.

Read Less

Review: Born from Above

Christopher R. Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Portland, Ore.: Tin House, 2012). 256 pages. $15.95.

The equivocation in his title is the key to Christopher R. Beha’s first novel. “What happened to so-and-so?” friends ask. They mean that so-and-so has disappeared from their social network, their gossip circle — not that so-and-so has disappeared for good. They want to know what so-and-so has been doing the last few years, like them, to settle into a marriage, raise children, promote a career. They don’t mean, “What changed? When did she become a different person?” Not until the end of Beha’s scrupulous novel does it become clear that what happened to Sophie Wilder is a more profound question than it first appears.

Author of The Whole Five Feet (a memoir of a troubled year spent reading straight through the Harvard Classics on their centennial) and an associate editor at Harper’s magazine, Beha has written a deeply literary first novel. I don’t mean that it is another frail workshop novel in which disappointments and epiphanies that would go overlooked anywhere else are exaggerated to compensate for the absence of a plot. There is a surprising amount of action in What Happened to Sophie Wilder. And if it is not quite the action of a spy thriller, it is more action than most would enjoy having visited upon them — sexual betrayal, the suffering of end-stage cancer, the drying up of talent and ambition, the crisis of faith.

Beha’s novel is literary in being about literature. Charlie Blakeman is a novelist whose first book caused barely a ripple. Sophie Wilder is the author of Visiting Professor, a collection of stories that caused a stir. Both have foundered upon the dilemma of a follow-up. They met in college at New Hampton, a liberal arts outpost somewhere in New Jersey. More appropriately, they met in the freshman-year fiction-writing workshop taught by a “near-famous novelist.” Sophie’s first story for the class, a 75-page Gothic tale about orphaned children, a pack of wolves, and murder (a novella, really), is unlike anything written by mere freshmen. Her literary opinions are unusual too. When asked whether she likes the Beats, she replies:

There’s no control, no sense of form. They romanticize their methods, as if we should read how they wrote instead of what they wrote. Eventually it all turns sentimental, like a conversation with a sloppy drunk.

Like Charlie, I was immediately smitten. And like everyone else in her life, I was puzzled and concerned when Sophie, who showed such promise, stopped writing. Initially this appears to be the sense of Beha’s title: what happened to Sophie Wilder the writer? Everyone keeps asking, especially the agent who got her a two-book contract with a major New York publisher. When Charlie meets her again after six years — Sophie had sabotaged their college romance by sleeping with his older cousin — they immediately fall to discussing their first books. Charlie admits his was not very good, but at least it was a start. “I’ll do better with the follow-up,” he says. “You’re precocious,” Sophie says. “It takes most writers years to regret their first book.” Charlie asks how her own follow-up is going. Sophie tells him it’s finished. Charlie responds enthusiastically, asking when he can read it. “It’s not that kind of finished,” Sophie explains. “No one’s ever going to read it.”

Charlie persists in misunderstanding her, but Sophie means that she is finished with the literary life. In the years since they were college lovers, Sophie has converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Her agent is excited by the news. “It’s like Graham Greene or something,” he says. “I mean, who converts anymore? Unless they’re converting away.” The fleeting reference to Greene is nice, because What Happened to Sophie Wilder includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair. Raised by parents who were indifferent to religion (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is not prepared for what happens to her when, by chance, she picks up an old copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The book does not convert her. She finishes it and realizes, “There had been no change within her yet.” But Merton leads to other Catholic writers, and Sophie discovers “an entire strain of human feeling and thought,” which until then had been “utterly foreign to her.” A literary intellectual, she commences the study of a new literature.

Then the unexpected happens. Attending mass at a small Catholic church, Sophie suddenly feels — she doesn’t know how else to say it — “for a time, occupied.” Later she would agree that the “occupying force” was the Holy Spirit. At the time, though, she knows only that she has been taken over by “something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor.” She rebuilds her life around the moment of revelation, although it never recurs. In the language of Christian theology, she is gennathei anothen — “not ‘born again,’ exactly, but ‘born from above.’ ”

She finds a use for her religious faith when her father-in-law emerges from years of estrangement and mystery to ask for her help. Bill Crane is hospitalized after surgery, and he wants out. St. Vincent’s will only release him to the care of a family member. He wants nothing more, but Sophie learns that he is suffering from end-stage stomach cancer. Her religious instruction forbids her to abandon him. And so she moves into his squalid apartment, intending to care for him as the light goes out; perhaps even, she reflects, to save his soul. Crane is furious: he wants only to be left alone to die. As the pain spreads and deepens, he begs her to kill him. For a time, Sophie stands by Catholic law. But in the end, she relents.

What happens next is amazing. Amazing and frustrating, since book-reviewing ethics prevent me from spoiling the novel’s ending. I’m not sure I could do it justice anyway. This much I can say. The last pages of the novel reorganize everything that has come before. You don’t close the book, but immediately return to the beginning to sort things out with a newfound understanding — and not just of Beha’s novel.

Beha writes his novel from alternating points of view; or, as Sophie herself would say, in alternating styles (“What was style, if not a point of view? A set of values?”). Every other chapter is narrated in first person by Charlie, who remains devoted to the principle of fiction (“[T]he story made the truth irrelevant,” he believes. “The telling was what mattered”). The even-numbered chapters are told in third person, from Sophie’s perspective — the perspective of a devotee to a different principle altogether. The difference in their values culminates in two different endings, two utterly different and incompatible versions of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Outside the styles and values of his two main characters, Beha gives his readers no assistance in determining what really happened. Fiction is challenged by religion; religion is challenged by fiction; and readers are challenged on the grounds of their deepest values.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a remarkable first novel, which should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature. Along with handing them something good to read, it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving.

Christopher R. Beha, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Portland, Ore.: Tin House, 2012). 256 pages. $15.95.

The equivocation in his title is the key to Christopher R. Beha’s first novel. “What happened to so-and-so?” friends ask. They mean that so-and-so has disappeared from their social network, their gossip circle — not that so-and-so has disappeared for good. They want to know what so-and-so has been doing the last few years, like them, to settle into a marriage, raise children, promote a career. They don’t mean, “What changed? When did she become a different person?” Not until the end of Beha’s scrupulous novel does it become clear that what happened to Sophie Wilder is a more profound question than it first appears.

Author of The Whole Five Feet (a memoir of a troubled year spent reading straight through the Harvard Classics on their centennial) and an associate editor at Harper’s magazine, Beha has written a deeply literary first novel. I don’t mean that it is another frail workshop novel in which disappointments and epiphanies that would go overlooked anywhere else are exaggerated to compensate for the absence of a plot. There is a surprising amount of action in What Happened to Sophie Wilder. And if it is not quite the action of a spy thriller, it is more action than most would enjoy having visited upon them — sexual betrayal, the suffering of end-stage cancer, the drying up of talent and ambition, the crisis of faith.

Beha’s novel is literary in being about literature. Charlie Blakeman is a novelist whose first book caused barely a ripple. Sophie Wilder is the author of Visiting Professor, a collection of stories that caused a stir. Both have foundered upon the dilemma of a follow-up. They met in college at New Hampton, a liberal arts outpost somewhere in New Jersey. More appropriately, they met in the freshman-year fiction-writing workshop taught by a “near-famous novelist.” Sophie’s first story for the class, a 75-page Gothic tale about orphaned children, a pack of wolves, and murder (a novella, really), is unlike anything written by mere freshmen. Her literary opinions are unusual too. When asked whether she likes the Beats, she replies:

There’s no control, no sense of form. They romanticize their methods, as if we should read how they wrote instead of what they wrote. Eventually it all turns sentimental, like a conversation with a sloppy drunk.

Like Charlie, I was immediately smitten. And like everyone else in her life, I was puzzled and concerned when Sophie, who showed such promise, stopped writing. Initially this appears to be the sense of Beha’s title: what happened to Sophie Wilder the writer? Everyone keeps asking, especially the agent who got her a two-book contract with a major New York publisher. When Charlie meets her again after six years — Sophie had sabotaged their college romance by sleeping with his older cousin — they immediately fall to discussing their first books. Charlie admits his was not very good, but at least it was a start. “I’ll do better with the follow-up,” he says. “You’re precocious,” Sophie says. “It takes most writers years to regret their first book.” Charlie asks how her own follow-up is going. Sophie tells him it’s finished. Charlie responds enthusiastically, asking when he can read it. “It’s not that kind of finished,” Sophie explains. “No one’s ever going to read it.”

Charlie persists in misunderstanding her, but Sophie means that she is finished with the literary life. In the years since they were college lovers, Sophie has converted to the Roman Catholic Church. Her agent is excited by the news. “It’s like Graham Greene or something,” he says. “I mean, who converts anymore? Unless they’re converting away.” The fleeting reference to Greene is nice, because What Happened to Sophie Wilder includes what is perhaps the best conversion scene in an English-language novel since The End of the Affair. Raised by parents who were indifferent to religion (“they lacked the feeling for it, what she would learn to call the capax Dei, the capacity to experience God”), Sophie is not prepared for what happens to her when, by chance, she picks up an old copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. The book does not convert her. She finishes it and realizes, “There had been no change within her yet.” But Merton leads to other Catholic writers, and Sophie discovers “an entire strain of human feeling and thought,” which until then had been “utterly foreign to her.” A literary intellectual, she commences the study of a new literature.

Then the unexpected happens. Attending mass at a small Catholic church, Sophie suddenly feels — she doesn’t know how else to say it — “for a time, occupied.” Later she would agree that the “occupying force” was the Holy Spirit. At the time, though, she knows only that she has been taken over by “something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor.” She rebuilds her life around the moment of revelation, although it never recurs. In the language of Christian theology, she is gennathei anothen — “not ‘born again,’ exactly, but ‘born from above.’ ”

She finds a use for her religious faith when her father-in-law emerges from years of estrangement and mystery to ask for her help. Bill Crane is hospitalized after surgery, and he wants out. St. Vincent’s will only release him to the care of a family member. He wants nothing more, but Sophie learns that he is suffering from end-stage stomach cancer. Her religious instruction forbids her to abandon him. And so she moves into his squalid apartment, intending to care for him as the light goes out; perhaps even, she reflects, to save his soul. Crane is furious: he wants only to be left alone to die. As the pain spreads and deepens, he begs her to kill him. For a time, Sophie stands by Catholic law. But in the end, she relents.

What happens next is amazing. Amazing and frustrating, since book-reviewing ethics prevent me from spoiling the novel’s ending. I’m not sure I could do it justice anyway. This much I can say. The last pages of the novel reorganize everything that has come before. You don’t close the book, but immediately return to the beginning to sort things out with a newfound understanding — and not just of Beha’s novel.

Beha writes his novel from alternating points of view; or, as Sophie herself would say, in alternating styles (“What was style, if not a point of view? A set of values?”). Every other chapter is narrated in first person by Charlie, who remains devoted to the principle of fiction (“[T]he story made the truth irrelevant,” he believes. “The telling was what mattered”). The even-numbered chapters are told in third person, from Sophie’s perspective — the perspective of a devotee to a different principle altogether. The difference in their values culminates in two different endings, two utterly different and incompatible versions of What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Outside the styles and values of his two main characters, Beha gives his readers no assistance in determining what really happened. Fiction is challenged by religion; religion is challenged by fiction; and readers are challenged on the grounds of their deepest values.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is a remarkable first novel, which should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature. Along with handing them something good to read, it will renew their faith in what literature is capable of achieving.

Read Less

Unions Back Israel-Bashing NY Democrat

If you’re unfamiliar with Charles Barron, a Democrat running for Congress in New York, read the Anti-Defamation League’s enlightening dossier. Barron is an extremist, dictator apologist and a passionate Israel-basher, who has railed against the “Jewish lobby,” called Gaza a “death camp” and aligned himself with anti-Semitic hate groups. He’s currently embroiled in a nail-biter primary race against Hakeem Jeffries.

While Barron might actually beat Jeffries on his own, it’s hard to imagine that any mainstream Democratic institution would lend him a hand in the primary. But as BuzzFeed reports, federal labor unions are actually planning to go to bat for him:

Two major city public worker unions, District Councils 37 and 1707 of the giant American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, have already endorsed Barron against Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a relatively moderate legislator who has championed charter schools, a union bugaboo.

And BuzzFeed has learned that their powerful federal parent union, known as AFSCME, is planning to dive into the race on Barron’s behalf. Another key New York State public workers union, the Civil Service Employees Association, meanwhile, blocked an AFL-CIO effort to endorse Barron’s rival.

“We respect the voice of our members,” AFSCME spokesman Chris Policano told BuzzFeed. “With the unanimous endorsement of the three affiliates, there will be money spent in this race.”

If AFSCME is willing to pour money behind a candidate who has praised Qaddafi and has called the Israeli government “the biggest terrorist in the world,” then who would it not support? If an avowed white supremacist ran for Congress on a pro-union platform, could he expect AFSCME’s financial backing as well?

Read More

If you’re unfamiliar with Charles Barron, a Democrat running for Congress in New York, read the Anti-Defamation League’s enlightening dossier. Barron is an extremist, dictator apologist and a passionate Israel-basher, who has railed against the “Jewish lobby,” called Gaza a “death camp” and aligned himself with anti-Semitic hate groups. He’s currently embroiled in a nail-biter primary race against Hakeem Jeffries.

While Barron might actually beat Jeffries on his own, it’s hard to imagine that any mainstream Democratic institution would lend him a hand in the primary. But as BuzzFeed reports, federal labor unions are actually planning to go to bat for him:

Two major city public worker unions, District Councils 37 and 1707 of the giant American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, have already endorsed Barron against Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a relatively moderate legislator who has championed charter schools, a union bugaboo.

And BuzzFeed has learned that their powerful federal parent union, known as AFSCME, is planning to dive into the race on Barron’s behalf. Another key New York State public workers union, the Civil Service Employees Association, meanwhile, blocked an AFL-CIO effort to endorse Barron’s rival.

“We respect the voice of our members,” AFSCME spokesman Chris Policano told BuzzFeed. “With the unanimous endorsement of the three affiliates, there will be money spent in this race.”

If AFSCME is willing to pour money behind a candidate who has praised Qaddafi and has called the Israeli government “the biggest terrorist in the world,” then who would it not support? If an avowed white supremacist ran for Congress on a pro-union platform, could he expect AFSCME’s financial backing as well?

By supporting Barron, AFSCME is also pitting itself against prominent New York Democrats who are actively denouncing the candidate:

Former Mayor Ed Koch, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Councilman David Greenfield, and Assemblyman Dov Hikind gathered with several other elected officials in front of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park this morning for a press conference billed as an effort “ to Denounce Charles Barron as Enemy of the State of Israel” and the Jewish community. The politicos who showed up at the event where longtime councilman Mr. Barron was branded “hateful,” a “scary monster,” “anti-Semite” and “bigot” also expressed their support for his rival in the congressional race, Hakeem Jeffries.

Democrats are rightly terrified about how Barron’s nomination would reflect on their party. The same can’t be said for the labor unions.

Read Less

Obama’s Unease with Free Enterprise

In a speech last week in St. Louis, Mitt Romney spoke about the “liberating power of the free enterprise system” and went on to say this:

That same system has helped lift more people out of poverty across the globe than any government program or competing economic system. The success of America’s free enterprise system has been a bright beacon of freedom for the world. It has signaled to oppressed people to rise up against their oppressors and given hope to the once hopeless. It is called the Free Enterprise System because we are both free to engage in enterprises, and through those enterprises we ensure our freedom.

For conservatives, this has been a terribly underutilized argument. When it comes to measuring an economic system based on its moral outcomes, there is simply no competitor when it comes to the free enterprise system. No economic system in history has come nearly as close as capitalism to raising the poor from the dust and elevating the dignity of the human person.

As Arthur Brooks and I explain in Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, there is a certain irony in the fact that capitalism is best at doing what it is most often accused of doing worst: distributing wealth to people at every social stratum rather than simply to elites. The evidence of history is clear on this point – the poor gain the most from capitalism, in part because, in most other economic systems, the game is rigged for the well-to-do. “The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production,” is how the economist Joseph Schumpeter put it, “which unavoidably means also production for the masses…. It is the cheap cloth, the cheap fabric, boots, motor cars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man.”

Beyond that, capitalism places intrinsic limits on the authority of the state. It requires private spheres of human action that are beyond the reach of government. As Michael Novak has said, in a free society the state should be subsidium. It loses legitimacy as it encroaches into areas where it does not belong.

Read More

In a speech last week in St. Louis, Mitt Romney spoke about the “liberating power of the free enterprise system” and went on to say this:

That same system has helped lift more people out of poverty across the globe than any government program or competing economic system. The success of America’s free enterprise system has been a bright beacon of freedom for the world. It has signaled to oppressed people to rise up against their oppressors and given hope to the once hopeless. It is called the Free Enterprise System because we are both free to engage in enterprises, and through those enterprises we ensure our freedom.

For conservatives, this has been a terribly underutilized argument. When it comes to measuring an economic system based on its moral outcomes, there is simply no competitor when it comes to the free enterprise system. No economic system in history has come nearly as close as capitalism to raising the poor from the dust and elevating the dignity of the human person.

As Arthur Brooks and I explain in Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, there is a certain irony in the fact that capitalism is best at doing what it is most often accused of doing worst: distributing wealth to people at every social stratum rather than simply to elites. The evidence of history is clear on this point – the poor gain the most from capitalism, in part because, in most other economic systems, the game is rigged for the well-to-do. “The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production,” is how the economist Joseph Schumpeter put it, “which unavoidably means also production for the masses…. It is the cheap cloth, the cheap fabric, boots, motor cars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man.”

Beyond that, capitalism places intrinsic limits on the authority of the state. It requires private spheres of human action that are beyond the reach of government. As Michael Novak has said, in a free society the state should be subsidium. It loses legitimacy as it encroaches into areas where it does not belong.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that capitalism is perfect, that it doesn’t ever become exploitive and self-destructive, or that regulations aren’t necessary. True friends of capitalism understand that it has to assist people through wrenching economic and social transitions. I understand, too, that President Obama claims to be a strong defender of capitalism. But what I have noticed is that when he speaks about capitalism and free enterprise, his words of praise are almost always qualified, minimalist, and pro forma. Their purpose appears to be inoculation, to prevent his critics from charging that Obama is not a strong defender of the free market and limited government. Yet the president’s record belies his claims.

The last three-and-a-half years, combined with his previous records, has a unifying theme to it: Barack Obama is constantly looking to expand the reach and power of government. He believes it’s the solution to almost everything that ails us. He reiterated that belief as recently as last week. There is no apparent off switch when it comes to the president’s spending habits.

In health care, Obama believes the solution is granting greater control to government, whereas conservatives believe the solution is granting greater control to individuals. For Obama, the word profit is almost always used despairingly, as synonymous for greed, as though it is an impairment rather than the engine of national wealth. He believes there is a moral imperative for government to redistribute wealth. He accuses strong champions of the free market (like Representative Paul Ryan) of supporting “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” And as the president’s stance toward Catholic institutions have shown, he wants to force religious institutions and civil society to bow and to bend to the will of government. His goal is for government to manage more and more of our private lives – not because he wishes us harm but because he believes it is in our self-interest. That is at the core of the progressive theory he clearly embraces.

The president is enchanted with the vision of a government-centered society to a degree that is highly unusual in American politics. That wasn’t as clear in 2008 as it is today. And it’s one reason why the outcome of the election this time around is likely to be different than the outcome of the election last time around.

Read Less

“Feel Your Pain” Strategy Won’t Work

Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Erica Seifert issued a new memo late yesterday, warning the Obama campaign that its current strategy is doomed to fail. And they seem right about one thing: the Obama campaign is going to have a hard time convincing the public that the economy is on the path to recovery, especially with greater economic pitfalls looming.

The strategists argue that the Obama campaign should forget trying to make the case that the president’s economic policies are working. Instead, it should focus on its support and empathy for the middle class, and highlight how Mitt Romney’s policies would leave struggling Americans vulnerable during tough economic times:

It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance – and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction. They are wrong, and that will fail. The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy; they know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the president talk about the future. They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle – and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand. They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way – not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery. …

But we underscore the sentiment they expressed in the postcards to the president they wrote at the end of the exercise: overwhelmingly, these voters want to know that he understands the struggle of working families and has plans to make things better.

Read More

Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Erica Seifert issued a new memo late yesterday, warning the Obama campaign that its current strategy is doomed to fail. And they seem right about one thing: the Obama campaign is going to have a hard time convincing the public that the economy is on the path to recovery, especially with greater economic pitfalls looming.

The strategists argue that the Obama campaign should forget trying to make the case that the president’s economic policies are working. Instead, it should focus on its support and empathy for the middle class, and highlight how Mitt Romney’s policies would leave struggling Americans vulnerable during tough economic times:

It is elites who are creating a conventional wisdom that an incumbent president must run on his economic performance – and therefore must convince voters that things are moving in the right direction. They are wrong, and that will fail. The voters are very sophisticated about the character of the economy; they know who is mainly responsible for what went wrong and they are hungry to hear the president talk about the future. They know we are in a new normal where life is a struggle – and convincing them that things are good enough for those who have found jobs is a fool’s errand. They want to know the plans for making things better in a serious way – not just focused on finishing up the work of the recovery. …

But we underscore the sentiment they expressed in the postcards to the president they wrote at the end of the exercise: overwhelmingly, these voters want to know that he understands the struggle of working families and has plans to make things better.

This is the opposite of “hope and change.” The message proposed in the memo is inherently pessimistic: Economic struggle is the new normal. You need to be protected from it. President Obama will provide a safety net, while Mitt Romney will not.

It’s also inherently reactionary: Mitt Romney wants to bring change. His reforms pose a risk to your social welfare programs during dangerous economic times.

Carville, Greenberg, and the gang seem to want Obama to channel Clinton’s “I feel your pain” message. But there are a few problems. First, Obama isn’t Clinton when it comes to personal connection with voters. The focus group members in this memo wanted to know that Obama empathizes with them. But Obama has played plenty of lip service to the concerns of the middle class during the past year. If the public is wondering whether he understands their pain, that seems to suggest a deeper connection problem. Why aren’t they already convinced?

Second, focusing on empathy seems like it would be less effective for an incumbent, particularly one whose policies have utterly failed to revive the economy. Romney has a clean rebuttal: Obama may feel your pain, but what has he done about it? Maybe the president sympathizes with you in a campaign speech, but at the end of the day, where is he? Jetting off to fundraisers, with rich people and celebrities.

And when Obama had a chance to help you, what did he do? He pushed through ObamaCare, which will rack up more debt and kill more jobs. And he jammed through a failed stimulus, stuffed with billions in funding for pet projects. He might feel your pain, but he clearly has no clue what to do about it.

Sure, the economy may tank and we may be teetering on a fiscal cliff — but at least Obama will be there to hold your hand when we finally step over the edge.

Read Less

Iran Building a Nuclear Submarine?

The semi-official Fars News Agency is claiming Iran is in the “initial stages” of building a nuclear submarine. While the Iranian government repeatedly exaggerates its prowess, the fact that the Iranians have come so far on their nuclear enrichment and missile programs suggests that no one should underestimate their engineers.

Perhaps it is time for some Western reflection. The Obama administration—and its European counterparts—are reportedly willing to put on the table advanced nuclear technology sharing, an idea that should have gone out the window when it failed with North Korea. Obama, however, does not own the idea of using nuclear technology as an enticement.

Read More

The semi-official Fars News Agency is claiming Iran is in the “initial stages” of building a nuclear submarine. While the Iranian government repeatedly exaggerates its prowess, the fact that the Iranians have come so far on their nuclear enrichment and missile programs suggests that no one should underestimate their engineers.

Perhaps it is time for some Western reflection. The Obama administration—and its European counterparts—are reportedly willing to put on the table advanced nuclear technology sharing, an idea that should have gone out the window when it failed with North Korea. Obama, however, does not own the idea of using nuclear technology as an enticement.

During the Bush administration, the State Department unveiled a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to share nuclear technology with, among other regimes, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The logic behind the program was to offer nuclear generating capability in a way that was supposedly proliferation proof. Little, however, is proliferation proof; some technologies just take a little more creativity to master diversion. And, once even a licit nuclear program is in place, it can serve as a means to import equipment and material which regimes can then divert to covert programs.

Of course, a basis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Additional Protocol is also technology sharing; indeed, Iran cites the Treaty to reaffirm its right to its nuclear project regardless of what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors and Security Council may say. While many in the proliferation community will uphold the NPT at any cost—even if it means providing hostile and cheating regimes with nuclear technology—it may be time for the United States to consider whether the lesser of all evils is clamping down on nuclear trade.

At the very least, Washington and Europe can still act unilaterally and simply stop offering nuclear goods as incentives. The last thing needed for international security is an Iranian submarine fleet that can actually operate for sustained periods far from Iran’s shores.

Read Less

Cornyn Calls on Holder to Resign

Sen. John Cornyn isn’t the first Republican senator to call for Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation, but he’s the first to do it straight to Holder’s face, which makes it all the more priceless. Click over to The Hill for video of the exchange at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier today. Here’s the critical line from Cornyn, which came after he went through a protracted list of Holder’s numerous misdeeds:

“Mr. Attorney General, it is more with sorrow than anger that I would say that you leave me no alternative but to join those who call upon you to resign your office.”

“The American people deserve better; they deserve an attorney general who is accountable and independent; they deserve an attorney general who puts justice before politics,” said Cornyn. “And it’s my sincere hope that President Obama will replace you with someone who’s up to that challenge.”

Read More

Sen. John Cornyn isn’t the first Republican senator to call for Attorney General Eric Holder’s resignation, but he’s the first to do it straight to Holder’s face, which makes it all the more priceless. Click over to The Hill for video of the exchange at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier today. Here’s the critical line from Cornyn, which came after he went through a protracted list of Holder’s numerous misdeeds:

“Mr. Attorney General, it is more with sorrow than anger that I would say that you leave me no alternative but to join those who call upon you to resign your office.”

“The American people deserve better; they deserve an attorney general who is accountable and independent; they deserve an attorney general who puts justice before politics,” said Cornyn. “And it’s my sincere hope that President Obama will replace you with someone who’s up to that challenge.”

Holder seemed more irritated than rattled by Cornyn’s surprise confrontation. He called the list “factually wrong,” and suggested that the criticism was politically motivated, but reiterated that he would not be stepping down.

This isn’t going to tip the scales or anything for Holder’s resignation, but it could definitely encourage more senators and congressmen to join the resignation calls and increase the political pressure on the DOJ and White House. Cornyn isn’t exactly a firebrand in the Jim DeMint mold, and compared to the other senators who’ve asked Holder to step down, he tends to be more measured. He’s also closer to the Fast and Furious investigation, as the Daily Caller’s Matt Boyle notes.  If he’s taking this step, it means he’s considered it seriously for awhile.

Read Less

On Jewish Community and Continuity, Orthodox Lead the Way

As Jonathan pointed out, the new survey of New York Jewish life–which is a considerable portion of American Jewish life–shows the liberal wings of organized Jewry to be both less organized and less Jewish, in terms of their practice, affiliation, and education. It also raises serious questions about how less observant Jews have responded to this demographic challenge. They are not putting their children into Jewish day schools, it seems. And their attitude toward philanthropic giving sharply contrasts with that of their forebears, and does not at all rise to meet the needs of the moment.

As the authors write: “Jews are devoting more of their giving to nonsectarian rather than specifically Jewish causes, as seen in the behavior of younger Jews versus older Jews and in the behavior of Jews more recently as compared with earlier points in history.” Additionally, the “number of Jewish philanthropic causes and organizations has proliferated,” while the “donor base for Jewish federations in North America has diminished.” There is less to go around, yet the Jewish community is spreading itself thinner and even giving more to non-Jewish causes. One problem with this approach becomes clear in the section of the report on poverty.

Read More

As Jonathan pointed out, the new survey of New York Jewish life–which is a considerable portion of American Jewish life–shows the liberal wings of organized Jewry to be both less organized and less Jewish, in terms of their practice, affiliation, and education. It also raises serious questions about how less observant Jews have responded to this demographic challenge. They are not putting their children into Jewish day schools, it seems. And their attitude toward philanthropic giving sharply contrasts with that of their forebears, and does not at all rise to meet the needs of the moment.

As the authors write: “Jews are devoting more of their giving to nonsectarian rather than specifically Jewish causes, as seen in the behavior of younger Jews versus older Jews and in the behavior of Jews more recently as compared with earlier points in history.” Additionally, the “number of Jewish philanthropic causes and organizations has proliferated,” while the “donor base for Jewish federations in North America has diminished.” There is less to go around, yet the Jewish community is spreading itself thinner and even giving more to non-Jewish causes. One problem with this approach becomes clear in the section of the report on poverty.

It is often assumed that the growth of Haredi and “yeshivish” Jewish communities will produce a corresponding increase in poverty and the need for public assistance. But as the authors note, “most poor Jewish households are not Orthodox.” This does not mean the number of poor in the Orthodox community is low–it is not, and in fact, the Orthodox represent the largest identifiable such group. But it does mean that 58 percent of the poverty within the Jewish community cannot be attributed to this lifestyle. Additionally, Orthodox communities centered on yeshiva life–usually referred to as yeshiva communities but in this report referred to as “yeshivish”–boast a significant communal support network, in addition to classic charitable giving.

Made up of gemachs, a Hebrew acronym of the term meaning acts of kindness, this network goes a long way toward making up for the material sacrifices made by low-income yeshiva households. Some Jewish communities have so many gemachs they have their own version of the Yellow Pages. The gemachs are families or companies that lend out items to those in need, including everything from books to wedding dresses to childcare products. To put it bluntly: the Orthodox Jewish community may have poor households, but its members possess an admirable and energetic sense of duty to one another.

The need for outside assistance, often from the local government, is therefore even more crucial for the non-observant. But their charitable organizations are raising money for those outside their own community as the number of Jewish poor continues to rise. In the Jewish community, it unfortunately seems that communal solidarity is fading along with observance. The community seems to be failing its Russian immigrants as well. Seven of every 10 elderly Russian speakers are poor, according to the study.

Is it any wonder then that, next to the Orthodox, Russian immigrants are the most identifiable conservative-leaning subgroup? Their more liberal brethren can’t be bothered to establish and support the kind of Jewish institutions that would help such immigrants form a bond with their new community. And the liberal/secular inclination to watch Jewish immigrants live in poverty while they pursue vague forms of tikkun olam and global citizenship is surely a failure to prioritize, even if their new pet causes are worthwhile (as many of them are).

The Orthodox certainly face challenges as their community grows. The Haredi community’s insularity means they must work hard to ensure that guidance counselors, special-needs educators, and other forms of crucial youth development services are available to their community. And poverty is often correlated with health risks that should not be ignored. But the Orthodox are also the source of the positive trends in the study. If the goal is Jewish continuity–as of course it should be–the Orthodox are leading the way.

Read Less

Obama Channels Bush 41’s Problems

Barack Obama’s foreign policy has often been compared to that of the first President Bush as the “realist” tendencies of both the president and his advisers have often been noted particularly with regard to his hostility to Israel and interest in appeasing Russia. But on the day that George H.W. Bush celebrates his 88th birthday, the real comparison between the Republican mandarin and the hero of the liberal “hope and change” crowd is just becoming apparent. As he seeks re-election, President Obama is fighting not so much to convince Americans of his worth but to control the narrative about a failing economy. That’s the very same struggle the 41st president fought and lost 20 years ago.

A generation after his political Waterloo at the hands of Bill Clinton’s political war room that immortalized the slogan “It’s the economy stupid,” the elder Bush is a popular figure, especially when compared to his son. Unlike his namesake, Bush 41’s re-election efforts were sabotaged by Ross Perot’s third party candidacy and the bad timing that caused his post-Gulf War popularity to peak a year before he faced the voters again. But most of all it was the perception that he had led the economy onto the rocks and was so out of touch with ordinary Americans that he didn’t even know it. After the last two weeks in which a devastating jobs report was followed by President Obama’s claim the private sector was “doing just fine,” you don’t have to strain to hear the echoes of the elder Bush’s troubles.

Read More

Barack Obama’s foreign policy has often been compared to that of the first President Bush as the “realist” tendencies of both the president and his advisers have often been noted particularly with regard to his hostility to Israel and interest in appeasing Russia. But on the day that George H.W. Bush celebrates his 88th birthday, the real comparison between the Republican mandarin and the hero of the liberal “hope and change” crowd is just becoming apparent. As he seeks re-election, President Obama is fighting not so much to convince Americans of his worth but to control the narrative about a failing economy. That’s the very same struggle the 41st president fought and lost 20 years ago.

A generation after his political Waterloo at the hands of Bill Clinton’s political war room that immortalized the slogan “It’s the economy stupid,” the elder Bush is a popular figure, especially when compared to his son. Unlike his namesake, Bush 41’s re-election efforts were sabotaged by Ross Perot’s third party candidacy and the bad timing that caused his post-Gulf War popularity to peak a year before he faced the voters again. But most of all it was the perception that he had led the economy onto the rocks and was so out of touch with ordinary Americans that he didn’t even know it. After the last two weeks in which a devastating jobs report was followed by President Obama’s claim the private sector was “doing just fine,” you don’t have to strain to hear the echoes of the elder Bush’s troubles.

Bush 41’s biggest problem in 1992 was an economy that was slow to rebound from a recession. The nation’s economic malaise was the foundation for Clinton’s critique of Bush. But even though the situation wasn’t nearly as bad as the Democrats painted it (and was well on the way to recovery in the final months of his presidency), there was no denying the White House seemed helpless throughout the campaign to combat the impression the country was going under on Bush’s watch.

The notion of Bush 41 as being clueless about the struggle of ordinary Americans was captured in one cringe-inducing moment when he expressed amazement at a supermarket price scanner, a device that had been in use in most stores for years. While it wasn’t really fair to criticize a man who had spent the previous 12 years as president and vice president for his unfamiliarity with the routines of grocery shopping, it reinforced the notion of him being a patrician who was clueless about ordinary life. Obama’s gaffe was actually much worse than that. It shows his refusal to accept the reality of the failure of some of his policies, but the real damage is that it has strengthened the prevailing narrative about the economy.

The analogy between the two presidents is far from exact. Obama has advantages Bush 41 could only dream of. Bush was just another in a long line of wealthy white guys to live in the White House, while Obama has the historic status that comes from being the first African-American president. Bush had a restive GOP base that bitterly resented the breaking of his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes, while Obama can still count on a united party even if the messianic hopes his presidency engendered have deflated some of their enthusiasm. Obama also can count on a mostly sympathetic liberal mainstream press. Most of all, there is no Ross Perot-like third party challenger in 2012 to muddy the waters and disrupt partisan voting trends that might have saved Bush.

But for all his advantages, unless President Obama can convince the country that events are not slipping beyond his control, he is on a fast track to being the first one-term president since Bush 41.

Read Less

Official Swede Tweeter: “Whats the fuzz with Jews.”

The New York Times was right. It’s not very often we say that. Two days ago, the newspaper began a story about the country of Sweden’s official Twitter account with, “Chances of embarrassment are unusually high when you are @Sweden, the nation’s official Twitter spokesperson.” Every week, a new Swede is handed control of the country’s Twitter feed and gives a personal face and voice to the country of more than nine million. The social media strategy behind the Twitter account is meant to showcase a “typical Swede” and promote the diversity of the Nordic country as a possible tourist destination. This morning, this week’s “tweeter” (and in my opinion the entire country) have some explaining and soul-searching to do.

That’s the first of a series of tweets sent this morning surrounding who is a Jew and how exactly one is supposed to identify one. Here’s another:

Sonja, this week’s tweeter, seems to believe there are no Jews in her country (despite there being more than 18,000 nationally).

The New York Times was right. It’s not very often we say that. Two days ago, the newspaper began a story about the country of Sweden’s official Twitter account with, “Chances of embarrassment are unusually high when you are @Sweden, the nation’s official Twitter spokesperson.” Every week, a new Swede is handed control of the country’s Twitter feed and gives a personal face and voice to the country of more than nine million. The social media strategy behind the Twitter account is meant to showcase a “typical Swede” and promote the diversity of the Nordic country as a possible tourist destination. This morning, this week’s “tweeter” (and in my opinion the entire country) have some explaining and soul-searching to do.

That’s the first of a series of tweets sent this morning surrounding who is a Jew and how exactly one is supposed to identify one. Here’s another:

Sonja, this week’s tweeter, seems to believe there are no Jews in her country (despite there being more than 18,000 nationally).

This led me to do a search for the history of the Jewish community in Sweden. Knowing Europe’s infamous relationship with anti-Semitism (increased attacks on French Jews, an attempted ban on kosher slaughter in the Netherlands, the rise of a neo-Nazi party in Greece, etc.) I wasn’t surprised to see this headline from a 2010 edition of the Telegraph, “Jews leave Swedish city after sharp rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes.”

Sweden’s tweeter seems to have backed off after getting some heated responses and already a few unflattering articles, but perhaps the country should take this as an opportunity to have a discussion about Sweden’s Jewish community and Swedish anti-Semitism. How has a country that was once known for being a safe harbor for Jews fallen this low? While the country’s seven-month-old Twitter account has pushed the edge a number of times (the vulgarity is what led to my unfollowing it several months back), today’s tweets moved beyond sensationalist. Instead of demanding an apology and moving forward, Sweden and the tweeter in question should evaluate why the tweets were so offensive and how this mother of two and other “typical Swedes” could learn about Jews both in Sweden and beyond.

Read Less

A Call to Abolish Property Taxes

The New York Times reports on a proposition being voted on today in North Dakota to abolish the property tax in that state.

Thanks to the oil boom, North Dakota is awash in state revenues, but it is not clear at all that the measure will pass, with many disparate organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the public-service unions, opposed. It should pass. The property tax is an economic obscenity.

If you want a poster child for the enormous inertia of government, you could hardly do better than the property tax. It’s a relic of colonial times that makes no economic or policy sense today and yet remains in just about every jurisdiction in the country.

Read More

The New York Times reports on a proposition being voted on today in North Dakota to abolish the property tax in that state.

Thanks to the oil boom, North Dakota is awash in state revenues, but it is not clear at all that the measure will pass, with many disparate organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the public-service unions, opposed. It should pass. The property tax is an economic obscenity.

If you want a poster child for the enormous inertia of government, you could hardly do better than the property tax. It’s a relic of colonial times that makes no economic or policy sense today and yet remains in just about every jurisdiction in the country.

In the 18th century, property was almost all income producing (only the very rich had houses standing by themselves on town lots, the rest lived on farms or above the store). And in a fairly primitive economy it was the best measure available of a person’s ability to pay taxes.

Today, almost all residential property is income absorbing, not income producing, and residential property is among the worst possible measures of ability to pay taxes. If a man retires or loses his job, his income can drop precipitously. His property tax is unchanged. And if the real estate market tanks, greatly reducing a family’s net worth, the tax again usually remains unchanged.

The property tax is also grossly regressive. People tend to have as much house as they can afford, but only up to a point. How many indoor swimming pools do you want, after all? So while a middle-class family might pay 15 percent or more of their income in property taxes, the zillionaire hedge-fund manager down the road, despite his riding ring, three-hole golf course, and garage for his large collection of antique cars pays less than one percent. David Letterman happens to live in my town. His property taxes (I checked, they’re public record) are about five times mine. His income, I confidently assert, is at least a couple of orders of magnitude greater than mine.

The property tax is highly subjective, difficult and expensive to assess, and inconvenient to pay. It violates every single one of Adam Smith’s rules for good tax policy. And it has all sorts of adverse effects beyond tax policy, such as encouraging suburban sprawl and forcing people to move out of homes they love but can’t afford to maintain.

If the nation is truly entering an era of deep reform, property taxes should be high on the list of things to abolish. They are nothing less than grotesque.

Read Less

Do the Rich Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes?

I must admit I’ve never understood the concept that some people would be excused from paying zero taxes and so would be completely disinvested in the system. I doubt I’m alone in favoring a far simpler tax code or my unease at the government’s willingness to push social or random political agendas through taxation. I doubt I am alone among residents of Montgomery County, Maryland, when I avoid shopping at local outlets and instead head to more consumer-friendly locations in Virginia. I can save 60 cents (!) a gallon simply by driving 15 minutes to Fairfax, Virginia. When it comes to tax burden, a new posting from my colleague Mark Perry offers some damning statistics:

We hear all the time that the “rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes” (123,000 Google search results for that phrase). Here’s an analysis using recent IRS data that suggests otherwise.

1. In 2009, the top 400 taxpayers based on Adjusted Gross Income earned $81 billion as a group, and paid $16.1 billion in federal income taxes (see chart).

2. In 2009, the bottom 50% of taxpayers, a group totaling 69 million, earned collectively more than $1 trillion and paid $19.5 billion in federal income taxes (see chart).

Read More

I must admit I’ve never understood the concept that some people would be excused from paying zero taxes and so would be completely disinvested in the system. I doubt I’m alone in favoring a far simpler tax code or my unease at the government’s willingness to push social or random political agendas through taxation. I doubt I am alone among residents of Montgomery County, Maryland, when I avoid shopping at local outlets and instead head to more consumer-friendly locations in Virginia. I can save 60 cents (!) a gallon simply by driving 15 minutes to Fairfax, Virginia. When it comes to tax burden, a new posting from my colleague Mark Perry offers some damning statistics:

We hear all the time that the “rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes” (123,000 Google search results for that phrase). Here’s an analysis using recent IRS data that suggests otherwise.

1. In 2009, the top 400 taxpayers based on Adjusted Gross Income earned $81 billion as a group, and paid $16.1 billion in federal income taxes (see chart).

2. In 2009, the bottom 50% of taxpayers, a group totaling 69 million, earned collectively more than $1 trillion and paid $19.5 billion in federal income taxes (see chart).

Democracy breaks down when the majority of American citizens pay far less in taxes than they receive in benefits. When the majority expects entitlements for which they need not pay and candidates can win elections not by promoting fiscal responsibility but rather by promising the populist status quo, then we really have become Greece. Here, the web application “Soak the Rich” really is worth a look. How ironic that Greece was once the model for democracy, but now we follow it off the precipice.

Read Less

Race Tightens in Pennsylvania

President Obama is jetting to Pennsylvania for several fundraising events today, but his failure to open a wide lead over Mitt Romney in the state is a troubling sign for his campaign. Pennsylvania is a must-win for Obama, and today’s Quinnipiac poll finds him falling short of the 50 percent mark, with just a 6-point lead (h/t HotAir):

With strong support from women and independent voters, President Barack Obama leads Gov. Mitt Romney 46 – 40 among Pennsylvania voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. Romney would do a better job on the economy, voters say 49 – 41 percent.

The matchup compares to a 47 – 39 percent Obama lead in a May 3 survey by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University.

In today’s survey, women back President Obama 51 – 36 percent, while men tip to Romney 44 – 40 percent. Obama leads 83 – 10 percent among Democrats and 43 – 35 percent among independent voters, while Republican voters back Romney 80 – 7 percent.

Read More

President Obama is jetting to Pennsylvania for several fundraising events today, but his failure to open a wide lead over Mitt Romney in the state is a troubling sign for his campaign. Pennsylvania is a must-win for Obama, and today’s Quinnipiac poll finds him falling short of the 50 percent mark, with just a 6-point lead (h/t HotAir):

With strong support from women and independent voters, President Barack Obama leads Gov. Mitt Romney 46 – 40 among Pennsylvania voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. Romney would do a better job on the economy, voters say 49 – 41 percent.

The matchup compares to a 47 – 39 percent Obama lead in a May 3 survey by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University.

In today’s survey, women back President Obama 51 – 36 percent, while men tip to Romney 44 – 40 percent. Obama leads 83 – 10 percent among Democrats and 43 – 35 percent among independent voters, while Republican voters back Romney 80 – 7 percent.

At HotAir, Ed Morrissey writes that this poll appears to be the latest in a trend:

What’s interesting about this result is its consistency with the entire Q-poll series. In five polls taken since last December, Obama hasn’t led Romney by more than eight points — which happened in the previous poll, as noted above. One of the two polls taken in March had the same exact outcome as today’s, while the other showed Obama only three points up on Romney. While the entire series could be an outlier, this particular result and the relative position of Romney to Obama in this poll is no outlier within the series.

The Romney campaign might be feeling optimistic, too, as he’s penciling in Pennsylvania on his upcoming bus tour. Romney has a lot to overcome in the state, even if he begins campaigning seriously there. But it’s not a place Obama expected to have to fight particularly hard in. No wonder the president has been fundraising so frantically recently — it looks like he’ll have to pour more money than expected into states that were once considered fairly safe for him, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Read Less

Turkey’s Facebook Arrests

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s transformation of Turkey into a police state grew a little more complete earlier this week with the arrest of the mayor and two other officials in Van, a predominantly Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey. Turkish authorities charged the three with being members of a terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). Let’s put aside the fact that Erdoğan argues that Hamas isn’t really a terrorist group because its members are elected. The root of the case to unseat and arrest the mayor should send chills down the spine of anyone who believed Erdoğan’s reforms were about making Turkey more democratic. The detainees’ crime? They “liked” articles on Facebook:

Van Mayor Bekir Kaya, along with the [Peace and Democracy Party] BDP’s Van provincial head, Cüneyt Caniş, and the former mayor of the province’s Başkale district, İhsan Güler, were arrested June 10 on charges of being a member of a terrorist organization. BDP  officials in the northwestern province of Bursa and the southeastern province of Hakkari were also detained in a KCK raid yesterday morning. Sixteen people were detained by Hakkari police yesterday in the early morning. Police raided houses of BDP members and detained 28 people, including the BDP’s deputy provincial head, Sait Gezer. Thirteen people were also detained in Bursa. The Human Rights Association’s (İHD) Hakkari branch head, Sait Çağlayan, and a reporter from Dicle News Agency (DİHA) were among the detainees. The BDP said the detainees had been charged with being members of the KCK via the articles they had “liked” on Facebook.

Read More

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s transformation of Turkey into a police state grew a little more complete earlier this week with the arrest of the mayor and two other officials in Van, a predominantly Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey. Turkish authorities charged the three with being members of a terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). Let’s put aside the fact that Erdoğan argues that Hamas isn’t really a terrorist group because its members are elected. The root of the case to unseat and arrest the mayor should send chills down the spine of anyone who believed Erdoğan’s reforms were about making Turkey more democratic. The detainees’ crime? They “liked” articles on Facebook:

Van Mayor Bekir Kaya, along with the [Peace and Democracy Party] BDP’s Van provincial head, Cüneyt Caniş, and the former mayor of the province’s Başkale district, İhsan Güler, were arrested June 10 on charges of being a member of a terrorist organization. BDP  officials in the northwestern province of Bursa and the southeastern province of Hakkari were also detained in a KCK raid yesterday morning. Sixteen people were detained by Hakkari police yesterday in the early morning. Police raided houses of BDP members and detained 28 people, including the BDP’s deputy provincial head, Sait Gezer. Thirteen people were also detained in Bursa. The Human Rights Association’s (İHD) Hakkari branch head, Sait Çağlayan, and a reporter from Dicle News Agency (DİHA) were among the detainees. The BDP said the detainees had been charged with being members of the KCK via the articles they had “liked” on Facebook.

Turkey, whatever its flaws, had a trajectory that was once moving in the right direction. That clearly is not the case anymore. Perhaps it’s time for members of the Turkey Caucus within the U.S. Congress to reconsider for what they stand.

Read Less